Not many would think of former Prime Minister John Howard, a self-confessed conservative and opponent of Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, as an environmentalist.
Yet from 1996 to 2007 the Howard government oversaw the introduction of legislation that banned broad-scale tree clearing in Queensland, cuts to fishing across large areas of the Great Barrier Reef and, his greatest achievement, the introduction of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act).
The EPBC Act is the centrepiece of federal environmental protection. It provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora, fauna, ecological communities and heritage places.
Fast forward to 2013 and Howard’s achievements are under threat from his protege, Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
In its first 100 days in parliament, the Abbott Government has weakened environmental protection and ignored scientific advice. It's a worrying trend.
Abbott has already abolished the Climate Commission, a body of scientists whose mission was to provide independent advice on climate change. In the Senate, Labor and the Greens are resisting the government’s efforts to abolish the carbon price, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority, which was established to provide advice on Australia’s pollution reduction targets.
The Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, released by Treasurer Joe Hockey on 17 December, confirmed a slowdown in funding for the Murray-Darling Basin in addition to the government’s earlier decision to overturn the river’s critically endangered listing. That decision came about following extensive lobbying by the powerful Irrigators Council, against expert scientific advice.
The government has also scrapped marine parks management plans, cut $6.7 million from the Caring for our Country program, removed federal funding for Environment Defenders Offices around the county, abolished the Biodiversity Fund, Home Energy Saver Scheme, Energy Efficiency Opportunities fund and the Low Carbon Communities program, confirmed a $40 million cut to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and has forgone $7.4 billion in revenue by ditching the carbon price and $439 million over the next three years by scrapping the profitable Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
The Renewable Energy Target, established by Howard and which requires energy retailers and large customers to source a proportion of their energy from renewable sources, is now in the government’s crosshairs. Abbott recently said wind farms were “sprouting like mushrooms all over the fields of our country”.
"If you drive down the Federal Highway from Goulburn to Canberra and you look at Lake George, yes there’s an absolute forest of these things on the other side of the lake near Bungendore,” he said.
The Renewable Energy Target has been the main driver in establishing Australia's clean energy industries in wind and solar. These industries provide employment and increasingly affordable energy, which is generated without polluting the air we breathe.
The RET is also driving investment in Australian technology, with our own universities developing and designing new ways to harness the nation's abundant sunlight. This type of intellectual property is in global demand by countries ramping up their own clean energy industries. China's rapid expansion of renewable energy provides a remarkable economic opportunity for Australian engineers, scientists, manufacturers and entrepreneurs.
Without the Renewable Energy Target, Australians can say goodbye to renewable energy in this country. If the Abbott Government strips the RET away, it will crush the industry to dust while other nations continue to rocket forward.
Howard pragmatically combined his popular conservative rhetoric with serious policymaking on environmental issues. He deliberately flew below the radar at times to get the work done. That took real political skill. He did not abandon industries or environmental responsibilities, he did not block out the reality of a changing world. And he did not embarrass Australia in the international arena.
A clever leader knows it is dangerous to ignore the national interest and the public good – both illuminate the path ahead. Abbott would do well to take a breath and examine his role-model’s example.
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